Jean Brown remembers five decades of students' faces and stories.
The little girl who in 1964 walked from West Sacramento to the church in midtown Sacramento where Brown was getting married, just to present her with a gift of owl salt-and-pepper shakers. The long-ago first-grader who grew up to join the military – and regularly sent her letters from wherever he was posted. The 10-year-old with hemophilia whose ambition, four decades ago, was to live to be 19.
"He'll be 50 this year," Brown said.
A fixture in West Sacramento's elementary schools since 1961, she has taught several generations of families. At age 75, Brown celebrated her 50th year of teaching West Sacramento children in mid-May, when former students and their parents surprised her with a party at a local VFW hall.
"It still amazes me," said Brown, whose late husband, Ken, was a veteran music teacher in the Washington Unified School District. "I couldn't imagine why they were surprising me. Am I retiring and don't know about it? I looked over and saw colleagues and college friends and lots of former parents and children.
"They all came up to hug me. They said it was because I've taught for 50 years. It's just what I do. I love it."
It's all she ever wanted to do, from the time she was growing up in Del Paso Heights, the daughter of parents who worked at Montgomery Ward. Her aunt in Southern California taught school, and Brown looked up to her.
While her career has spanned all the elementary grade levels, she spent 27 years as a first-grade teacher at Westfield Village Elementary.
For the last 15 years, after a year-long stab at retirement during which she substituted instead of staying home, she has taught preschool at James Marshall Parent Participation Nursery School.
Each morning during the school year, she faces 25 little ones, who range in age from 3 to 5. She hugs them when they arrive for the day at 8:30 a.m. and when they leave not quite three hours later. In between, they play – or at least, the children think they play, while Brown teaches them through their activities.
"In preschool, I want them to know that school is a fun place," she said. "You can learn and have fun, and people are loving and caring."
Or as Catherine McDonald, parent of one of her recent preschool students, put it, "Mrs. Brown is like the grandmother we should all have."
In 1975, one of her first-graders – a little girl named Debbie – paid close attention to Brown, deciding she wanted to be a teacher one day, too.
Life took her in other directions. Today, Debbie Johnson is 43, the stay-at-home mother of a 5- and a 10-year-old who graduated from Brown's preschool classes.
"Watching Mrs. Brown with kids is wonderful," Johnson said. "She really knows how to reach them. She's an old-fashioned teacher who teaches through music and hands-on learning.
"When I was on the board at Marshall, she and I as adults formed a close friendship. But I still call her Mrs. Brown. It would feel weird for me to call her Jean."
With the close of another school year, Brown will teach vacation Bible school at her church, Carmichael Presbyterian, over the summer. And she'll prepare for class again in August, with no plans to retire as long as she remains healthy.
"I never thought I did anything important," said Brown, who has two daughters and three grandchildren. "Education, though, is important. It's my job. I'm so proud when I find out my students have done well out there."